By Greg Beacham
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The general manager also realizes the Lakers’ chances of returning to the playoffs probably depend on it.
“I think he’ll be very effective,” Kupchak said Friday. “I’m not going to predict what his statistics will be, but … if we needed 30 or 35 (points) from him, I think he could get it.”
Kupchak radiated preseason optimism while discussing the Lakers’ prospects for a rebound from last spring’s disappointments. Los Angeles finished 27-55 and missed the playoffs for just the third time in 38 years, but the GM believes he has a playoff-contending roster in place around Bryant this fall.
Still, much depends on the health of Bryant, who will make $48.5 million over the next two seasons. Just six games after he finally returned from surgery on a torn Achilles tendon last winter, Bryant broke a bone near his knee and was lost for the year.
Kupchak has been watching Bryant’s recovery for several months, observing his workouts at the Lakers’ training complex and near his home in Orange County. Bryant has lost at least 10 pounds during the process, getting back down to his playing weight prior to the injuries.
“I think he’s going to have an excellent year,” Kupchak said. “He’s going to play differently than he played 10 years ago. Maybe not so different than what he played two or three years ago, because if you’ve tracked his progress over the years … he’s gradually turned into a seasoned veteran, knowing when to turn it on.
“He goes to certain spots on the court. He doesn’t take wild shots. He doesn’t gamble as much on defence. I think you’ll see a player similar to what you saw two years ago. He’ll do as much as he has to do to put us into the best chance to win.”
Health is the Lakers’ primary concern, and they’ve got it so far. Steve Nash, who played in just 15 games last season, said he is in his best condition in the last two years, while new forward Carlos Boozer also appears to be revitalized after wearing down last season in Chicago.
Yet the Lakers are very aware that Bryant turned 36 last month, and Nash is 40 as both guards head into their 19th NBA seasons. Kupchak would support Byron Scott if the new coach elects to limit the guards’ minutes or participation in back-to-back games, but they’ll have time to discuss it after Los Angeles opens training camp Monday.
“If there is some kind of a mandate to restrict minutes or games, hopefully the players understand it and they work with Byron on it,” Kupchak said, mindful of Bryant’s competitive nature.
“(Bryant) looks really good, says he feels great,” Kupchak added. “No ill effects on either injury. Steve Nash says he feels the best he’s felt in a long time. He’s been working out, playing every day. … I think we’re a little bit more apprehensive with Steve, naturally, because of what he went through last year and his age.”
The Lakers tried to get help for Bryant in the off-season, but free agents LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony declined to join Kobe and the 16-time champions. Even Pau Gasol signed with the Bulls, spurning the Lakers and their fans who loved to hate him.
Kupchak held up his summer personnel moves while courting the league’s top names, but came up empty.
“If you don’t try, you don’t know,” Kupchak said. “We went all-out to try to pursue (James and Anthony). I think we came close, I really do, but it doesn’t really matter.”
So while the Lakers hope Nash stays healthy, Boozer and Jeremy Lin revitalize their careers, Nick Young keeps scoring and draft pick Julius Randle develops into an elite power forward, they’ll continue to count on Bryant.
“It’s comforting to know he’ll be here two more years, and he’s healthy,” Kupchak said. “With him on the court, we’re always going to have the chance to win games.”